Sunday, January 19, 2020

SpaceX Aces Critical Abort Test

It took them a couple of days to get the weather acceptable for launching the Crew Dragon abort test, but the mission went off without a hitch at 10:30 EST this morning.  The original schedule was for 8:00 AM yesterday (“no earlier than...”) but that was cancelled due to the strong winds not easing, as was forecast Friday.  The test was rescheduled for this morning at 8:00 AM and then rescheduled for 10:00, then 10:30.  Since it's a suborbital test, the launch window wasn't critical and extended to 2:00 PM.  On the plus side, the weather allowed them to test the system at the limits it would ever be allowed to fly in, including splashing down in rough seas.

We were still socked in by clouds, only catching a glimpse or two of the Falcon 9 booster during it's 1:37 second lifetime.  We came back in and watched the test unfold on SpaceX's feed on YouTube.

This is a screen capture from their video, showing virtually the moment that the F9 is shutdown and the Crew Dragon escape rockets fire. 

Ten seconds later the F9 booster exploded - this was expected to happen, but was dramatic to see.

The post-test press conference declared that all objectives have been met.  That was the last test involving the full vehicle, but there are still some tests required before the system will be pronounced flight ready and a manned mission to the ISS would be allowed.  Those sound like isolated hardware tests, parachutes and some other systems, which should go more quickly than full system tests requiring launches of the Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon.

The post-test conference is optimistic that the first Crew Dragon flight from the KSC to the ISS will happen this year, probably in the second quarter of the year; that is, before summer.  That will be the first manned launch from US soil since the final flight of the Shuttle Discovery in 2011

Saturday, January 18, 2020

California - Killing Jobs Since Forever - Freelance Writers Hardest Hit

I had heard of California's Assembly Bill no. 5 (AB5) as an attack on the Gig economy, but hadn't read much about it until this week.  The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) put up a look at the bill with details I'd missed.  The law doesn't specifically prohibit freelance work, but it severely constrains it and that is putting a lot of freelancers out of work.

They start out with an example to catch a lot of people's interests, and talk about the two most popular streaming programs on TV: Disney's The Mandalorian and Netflix's The Witcher.
In The Mandalorian, the title character (nicknamed Mando) is a bounty hunter who works, and gets paid, on a case-by-case basis for specific contracts. He’s a member of a bounty hunting guild, which is not his “employer,” but rather a cross between a credentialing association and a job board.

In The Witcher, the title character is Geralt of Rivia, a monster hunter for hire who roams the Continent, clearing out dangerous beasts that threaten the lives and livelihoods of others. Sometimes the contract is offered by the local nobility, sometimes it comes directly from the common folk. Witchers also have a guild that credentials its members.
In both cases, the freelancer takes on a specific job for a short period of time and once the fugitive is found by bounty hunter Mando or the monster dispatched by Geralt of Rivia, the contract is over.  Employer and employee part ways.

That's what AB5 is outlawing.  The law redefines “employee” in a way that makes freelance work nearly impossible. While it was aimed at work arranged through on-demand apps like Uber, Lyft, and Taskrabbit, it impacted freelancing in general.  Writer Andi Loveall (@ms_andiloveall) tweeted,
They're forcing any company that hires a freelancer for more than 35 gigs a year (which is nothing, I can do that in a week or two) to hire the freelancers as employees. But my company only uses freelance writers. So I lost my ability to work there. And so did many others.
Another writer, who just goes by the name Amy (@MazingAmy) tweeted:
35 submissions a year? I have to write 80 a month to support myself.
But naturally, the wonderful state thinks they've made these peoples lives better by making them unemployed.  The reality is the law was written without the slightest care for writers like these two women.  It was written to protect cab drivers from Uber and Lyft, and wreck any other choice of working arrangements people might like.  Note the condescending attitude of the "AB5 cosponsor"
When writers who lost contracts with Vox Media told AB5’s sponsor about their troubles, the lawmaker said those “were never good jobs,” and the loss was limited to “contractors who don’t want a job.” The fact that until recently they had jobs, with the freedom to work where and when they wish and never do unpaid overtime, didn’t seem to matter.

It’s worth noting that the bill’s sponsor, a lawyer, included an exemption for her own profession and a dozen others with the political juice to get one while arbitrarily rendering all other such arrangements illegal. The real beneficiaries of the law—powerful labor unions—just cut their small-business competition off at the knees.
Of course, it's not just writers vs. Uber drivers.  Independent truck drivers, who buy their own trucks and prefer to work for themselves are also hard hit, as are musicians and all sorts of artists.  For a virtually endless stream of stories, check out the #AB5Stories and #AB5 hashtags on Twitter. 

KUSI photo.  

Friday, January 17, 2020

Concept Cars from the Consumer Electronics Show

When I hear the term concept car, I think it's a test bed for a group of undeveloped technologies, but a group that the car makers' most forward-looking, system architects think are likely to be used in their cars no sooner than three to five years out.

This year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES), pretty much the leading indicator for at least the next year in consumer electronics, was held last week, the 7th to 11th, in Las Vegas.  The usual tech web sites, like c/net, covered lots of details from the show, but an article in Electronic Design on some concept cars caught my eye.  Mainly because I look at them and say, “just what is the concept?”  For example, here's the Mercedes Benz concept:

I didn't think this at first (I think my actual first thought was, “WTF??”) but they say it's inspired by James Cameron’s “Avatar.”  It's called the VISION AVTR.
The interior and exterior have an “inside-out design structure” with its stretched "One Bow." It does not have a conventional steering wheel. Instead, a multifunctional, curved, touch-activated center console supports a project menu selection interface.

The car is supposed to use an organic, graphene-based battery technology that uses recyclable materials instead of rare earths and metals. Hey, it’s a concept car.

The vehicle also has 33 "bionic flaps" on the back that are “reminiscent of scales of reptiles.” The front and rear axles can move in the same or opposite direction, allowing the VISION AVTR to move sideways by about 30 degrees in a so-called "crab movement."
Of the four cars shown, this is the most surrealistic.  My reaction to the car, thinking about sitting in that seat, forced into that position, with see-through doors that would offer no protection from a side collision was, “Nope.  Nope.  Nope.”

Sony (of all companies) presents a pretty normal looking car, rather full of cameras and other electronics more associated with Sony than cars.  There's a dozen cameras in the Vision S.
There are plenty of other sensors as well, including a dozen ultrasonic sensors, five radars, and three solid-state LiDARs. One might scoff at the plethora of sensors, but this will likely be standard fare in the future of self-driving cars. 
Besides the Sony, Nissan's fully-electric Leaf SUV looks like you could find it on the lot now, and the article says it's the closest to production.  Toyota's Yui, though, goes back in the direction of the Mercedes VISION AVTR but goes nowhere near as far.

Yui is supposed to bring a “warm and friendly” experience to driving.  ...

Inside there's a 3D, full-color, head-up display (HUD) along with futuristic, contour seating. The car targets SAE Level 4 driving support and includes an automated valet parking system developed jointly with Panasonic that also helped with the HUD's development. The interior also makes extensive use of embedded LED lighting from floor to ceiling. The headlights employ digital micromirror devices (DMDs), allowing for focused beams that can avoid blinding other cars and pedestrians.
Notice that the doors go back in the direction of the see-through design of the Mercedes.  Honestly, do you really want to look at the butt and thighs of the people you see on the road?  Or their garbage piled on the floor?  Do you really want the world looking at your butt and thighs through a window like that?   To be honest, they both reminded me of this plumber's ad concept.

Confidential to the artists, there's only a handful of people in the world who look good in that view, and they work as models - or could if they felt like it.  And to the managers of the car companies who put the artists there, you'll get more sales by making the doors more conventional. 

Overall, I'm confident that see through-cars like these are highly unlikely to make it to production.  More rational heads will prevail.  Still, I think the overarching lesson here is that artists shouldn't be let too close to the concept car line.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Sometimes, Reality Interrupts

But you know that, right?

Last night as I'm getting ready to draft a post, I hear an unknown sound, but somehow a familiar sound.  It was clearly an alarm of some sort, but it didn't sound like anything I knew and could identify.  It was loud enough to make the cats run for cover, and I quickly localized it to the kitchen, but what was it?  An alarm from one our wireless freezer alarms?  No, the digital displays looked normal.  The door ajar alarm from the refrigerator?  No.  It took me a while to realize it was an alarm that we'd set up in 2016, but that had never gone off - and I didn't know what it sounded like.  It's a water detector with its sensor under the dishwasher, along the back wall (lowest point) so that if there's a leak back there we have a better chance of knowing it before we have thousands of dollars worth of damage.  Like we did in 2010.  Or just 3-1/2 years ago, summer of '16 (not as bad as '10).

It was almost like this:

The alarm did its job.  I don't know how much water was down there, or still is, but we shut off the dishwasher, and using the 2-1/2" hole cut through the cabinet base for the alarm sensor, vacuumed up or absorbed water with towels, sponges or whatever I could cram back there.  My little battery powered shop vac got very little water out of there.  With luck, it didn't soak plywood, and once we figure out why it's leaking and fix it, the whole thing will be over with.  Meanwhile, the major inconvenience is washing dishes by hand, and if washing dishes by hand is your biggest problem in life, you've got a sweet life.

As long as I'm using column space for some “Me Me” stuff, after a few weeks of putting it off, we went to see Star Wars 27: The End of The Universe (just kidding).  Our local multiplex has an early morning special that gets the two of us in for under $9, and going for that price was part of the decision.  There might have been 10 people in the theater, which isn't bad for a starting time just before 10AM. 

I'm a bit of two minds about it.  If you're just going to a movie, it's fun and worth the price.  Space opera type adventure.  Lots of flash, lots of CGI, lots of action.  I've read bits and pieces about a few of the actors here and there: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver and John Boyega, for a few, and they seem to come across as basically good kids, not “Hollyweird snots.”

On the other hand to millions, it's not just a movie, it's part of the Star Wars universe and story lines.  First off, if you go to this without having any idea of who the characters are and what they're talking about, you'll probably be too lost to make sense out of it.  If anyone can make sense of it, because as a coherent Star Wars universe story, they kind of stretch the ideas beyond recognition.  I'm sure you've heard that - Bayou Renaissance Man did a piece on that including a Bill Whittle video.  Like any movie, there's willing suspension of disbelief and then there's that point where (at least) my brain says, "WTF was that?"  It's fun unless you're looking for a coherent Star Wars story.

At times, it seemed like a collection of short stories that are written by entirely different authors, yet somehow sold as one book.  We all know these movies are written as distinct acts and scenes; it's like each act is a sub-movie but the integration of those acts into a coherent whole wasn't quite there.

So I say that there are worse ways to spend a couple of hours, like lying on the floor working on a dishwasher, and it's even a decent movie.  It's just got a lot to live up to and falls short.  Still, I walked out of the theater entertained and diverted for a couple hours, and that's a pretty good way to spend those hours.

And, listen: since the current version of Darth Vader is Kylo Ren, and the most twisted cartoon show in the '90s was Ren and Stimpy, you might want to do an image search on Kylo Ren and Stimpy.  That's all I'll say.

The principal characters in the movie (more or less).  In the background, Poe - Oscar Issac, and Finn - John Boyega.  Foreground Chewie - Joonas Suotomo and Rey - Daisy Ridley.  Disney photo.  (The original Chewbacca, Peter Mayhew, retired in 2015 and passed away last April, 2019)

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

It's Nice to See Project Veritas Publicize the Fascist in Bernie's Stable, But...

Kyle Jurek, Iowa Field Organizer, isn't the scariest or most dangerous member of Bernie's team.  He's just, um, maybe, the most obvious fascist.  He wants to send anyone to Bernie's right to the Gulags and education centers.  Or be executed.  After all, he's quoted as saying
Kyle Jurek says liberal democrats should be placed in gulags or be put to death: “Liberals Get the F***ing Wall First.”
In big picture sense, though, he's a nobody.  All bluster and thunder and either gone by now or will be soon.  Much like the doctors who do colonoscopies, in a few weeks we'll see Kyle Jurek's name and think he's just some asshole we've seen before.  

The one more dangerous than Jurek would be Dr. Stephanie Kelton, Bernie's senior economic advisor, who is a strong advocate for Modern Monetary Theory.   Modern Monetary Theory is a recipe for hyperinflation and destruction of the currency.  We've seen this movie before.  Countries like Zimbabwe, and today's Venezuela come to mind.  Let me borrow a Tweet from Dr. Kelton that I've used before:

Kelton and the other MMT always cite these bad analogies.  Is it stupidity, dishonesty, or are they just expecting anyone reading it to be stupid?
  • The carpenter can run out of inches of wood, inches of nails, or inches in his tape measures.  Or anything that is used to create real things of value.
  • A stadium doesn't have anything to do with points to run out of.  The officials can't give out points the teams didn't score and retain any credibility.  The stadium rents out seats, sells food, and maintains a playing surface.   It can run out of all of those. 
  • The airline can run out of Frequent Flier miles that they can redeem: they can run out of seats to put passengers in. 
  • The USA can run out of dollars if we want them to be worth something. 
All of these MMT theorists cite illogical lines like this; they confuse numbers with numbers of real things.  Numbers are infinite; resources aren't.  If the carpenter tried to build with more inches of wood than they had bought, they couldn't do the job.  If an airline offered more miles than they could redeem, they'd lose customers.  And if a country created more money than its economy could possibly justify, its money would mean nothing and be worth nothing. 

In a way, the MMT theorists are like Marvin the Paranoid Android in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  They've got “a million ideas. They all point to certain death.”

Monday, January 13, 2020

On The September Saudi Oil Field Attacks

Reports at the time claimed these were drones, slightly bigger/better payloads than hobbyist drones, but not sophisticated weapons.  Geostrategy Direct (paywall warning) has a very different take on this, as excerpted on Free Pressers.
On Sept. 14, 2019, Iran attacked Aramco oil facilities in Saudi Arabia with cruise missiles. However, the Iranian cruise missile used in the attack was previewed in a Feb. 17, 2018 Iranian TV report from Imam Hossien University, shown next to Chinese missile designs.

The Iranian cruise missile was similar to the Chinese Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) C-705 export cruise missile.

CASIC has a longstanding record of cruise missile sales to Iran.

This view of the damage at the Saudi Abqaiq facility.  These are Liquified Natural Gas storage tanks, and each has puncture in essentially the same spot.  Despite last weeks' Iranian attacks on Iraqi facilities showing extremely poor results, they can clearly hit targets precisely when they want to.  Defense Update reports. 
The damage from the September 14 attack seems to be caused by a small explosive shaped charge, (guided weapons?) rather than large cruise missiles such as the Soumar. The Iranians do have small, stealthy suicide drones that can cause such effects or drones that carry multiple PGM that would cause this damage. However, flying such drones over this protected site would be extremely difficult. Photo: DigitalGlobe.
The truth is probably not a question of small drones vs. cruise missiles, it's probably both.  The Geostrategy Direct column's emphasis is that Iran isn't acting completely alone as the agents provocateur in the middle east; Iran is teaming up with China.
China has used disinformation to conceal its role in promoting conflict with Iran in the wake of the spike in Persian Gulf and even global military tensions following the Jan. 3 American drone strike in Baghdad, Iraq, that killed Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani.

Two days later, on Jan. 5, Chinese state media organ Global Times stated: “China won't use proxy warfare in the Middle East or coerce countries in the region to choose sides. China's joint naval drill with Russia and Iran is not an attempt to seek its sphere of influence, pursue military expansion, or fight against other countries in the region. China is seeking amity with all Middle Eastern countries, engage in cooperation with them and contribute to regional security.”

These claims are all false; since the 1980s China has been a principle backer of Iran’s radical Islamic regime, providing decades of military technology and assistance, while becoming the principle source of foreign revenues as the largest customer for Iran’s petroleum. Iran, in turn, gives Chinese weapons to terrorist groups in Lebanon and Yemen, which respectively, are fighting Israel and Saudi Arabia. 

China claims to be seeking ‘amity with all Middle Eastern countries’ but starting on Dec. 27, 2019 it sent a major Chinese Navy warship to exercise with Iran’s Navy, showing clear support for Iran.  Free Pressers photo. 

It seems to be common belief that this was an attack that the Houthi rebels in Yemen carried out - with the implication that it was unsophisticated, and that any determined street gang could duplicate it.  It wasn't.  It was disguised to look like that - if one doesn't look too closely. 

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Solar Cycle 25 Seems to be Awakening

In the last month, the quiet sun has been broken, not by sunspots from cycle 24 (current) but with spots from cycle 25 starting to ramp up. Live Science has the story:
The two new sunspots, designated as NOAA 2753 and 2754, were seen on Dec. 24 by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory — a satellite that monitors the exterior and interior of the sun from a geosynchronous orbit more than 22,000 miles (more than 35,000 kilometers) above the Earth's surface.
Those two spots were gone the next day.  Switching to the ARRL Propagation Bulletin for this week:
A single new Solar Cycle 25 sunspot appeared over the past week, January 1 through January 8. NOAA did not record or number the new spot until January 2, but indicated it (sunspot region 2755) began on January 1.

Then another new Solar Cycle 25 spot emerged on Thursday, January 9 with a daily sunspot number of 14. I was excited to see post "Solar Cycle 25 Continues to Intensify."
Today's sunspot number is still 14 - the leading 1 means one group.  The first two spots, from Dec. 24th, are shown here circled in visual and what appears to be Hydrogen Alpha light (infrared):

The instruments onboard NASA's orbiting Solar Dynamics Observatory captured imagery of the two sunspots from the new sunspot cycle on Dec. 24 — one in the sun's northern hemisphere and one in the southern hemisphere, shown here circled in red. (Image credit: NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory)

How do we know they're not from cycle 24?  Two ways: first, as the solar cycle progresses, spots converge on the equator and nothing shows up as far north or south as these two.  Second, the magnetic polarity of the spots can be measured from the earth (yes, we're in the sun's magnetic field and can measure that from here, 93 million miles away). 

This diagram illustrates the polarization.

This image illustrates the old cycle spots being clustered near the solar equator and the new cycle spots being farther out in latitude.  Black and white represent the magnetic poles being flipped in each hemisphere from the older cycle spots.  (Image credit: Jan Janssens/STCE)

If you're an optimist, you're likely to say, “wow, four new cycle sunspots just since December 24th - this new cycle is really cranking up!”  The other view point is “gee, those are really pretty weak, and the first two were there one day - very short-lived - we've got a long way to go.”  Think of this as solar weather, and just as we differentiate between weather and climate here, whenever it's unusually hot or cold, my tendency is to think it doesn't tell us very much at all other than that we're in the interim between cycle 24 and 25.   

These were weak spots, with very little spread on the disk and no complexity.  Solar Flux measured at 2800 MHz has been at nearly quiet sun levels, a few points better than during the quiet sun last month.  Radio propagation has been largely unaffected so far.  There's nothing here to say the sun is going wild or shutting down.  It's just the time when both cycles can be seen. 

Saturday, January 11, 2020

A Little Catching Up On Stories

After Monday night's launch of 60 of their Starlink satellites, SpaceX is now the world's largest satellite operator, with 180 of those satellites in orbit.  They're just getting started, with a possible 20 more launches of 60 satellites per launch (1200) this year.

With its highly reusable Falcon 9 rocket first stage, SpaceX also has a decided cost advantage in terms of getting its satellites into space.   As the saying goes, they get the launches at cost.  If they could capture just 3 percent of the global Internet market, those satellites could bring in about $30 billion in revenue.

The Starlink satellites are not without controversy.  Like pretty much all LEO (Low Earth Orbit) satellites, they're visible when it's dark on the ground but sunlight is still reaching the satellites and the astronomy community is starting to sound alarms about the satellites wiping out photographs, or otherwise ruining observations.  There's a sample video here.   This is an early photograph from May of '19, the first batch of 60.

The company's responses seem like it's something they never thought of but they'll look at what they can do.  I suppose it's possible they never thought of this aspect since it's not something people who aren't sky watchers would think of right away.  I really don't see much they could do to the satellites to make them not reflect - they have a massive solar panel on them and they can't exactly paint that black.

I may have stumbled onto a player in my 5 year long struggle with my Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter popping randomly.  Last week, I had done a few experiments aimed down a simple-minded troubleshooting path.  I figure that side of the room has five outlets and about 60 feet of wire, and I'll just replace it all until I make the problem go away.  Outlets first, then wire.  I removed the obvious one to remove first, an outdoor outlet.  With the outlet removed (and the wires terminated with wire nuts), the GFCI popped in about 48 hours.  Then I unplugged a few more things and went another 48 hours before it popped.  Yesterday, I bought replacement outlets for the rest of that circuit and replaced them all today.  One of the existing outlets had this suspicious damage.

The plastic insulation is split all around the top outlet, but we're looking at the neutral side closest to the camera.  I have the rest of the shop plugged in but everything is turned off - except for the surge-protected power strip that would be plugged into this outlet.  That's unplugged until I need something on that circuit, then it will be plugged in for as long as I need the power. 

Friday, January 10, 2020

Early 5G Deployments Aren't Looking Much Like 5G

This is a story I've been trying to keep up with as most of us have some interest in it.  I've been posting occasional stories on Fifth Generation (5G) cellular systems for a while now - these two, from last April and then August, will bring you up to date.

In a nutshell, the major improvements coming in 5G are all speed-related.  Everyone talks about the advertised download speeds in the 4 to even 10 gigabit/second range.  The uses projected for the "Internet of Things" or IOT depend more on the reduced communication times - reduced latency or faster networks.  The IOT and it's cousin, the Industrial IOT (IIOT), will do simple things like put water pumps, flood gates, and all sorts of civic and utility infrastructure on the net.  The vast majority of these things are not high bandwidth users and don't need the faster data rates that 5G promises but will benefit from the reduced latency.

Nationwide, there's somewhat of a competition for bragging rights of being ahead in the 5G race.  As will sometimes happen, things aren't always honest when marketing gets involved in these competitions and some of what's really deployed isn't as much of an upgrade as is being sold. 

The wireless industry has long responded to a lack of... well, guys like me: graybearded Radio Frequency (RF) designers - with lots of training and product integration help to enable the newbies to put together systems without ruining things (as much).  One of the big names in the training industry, Les Besser Associates has apparently teamed with a long-established electronics hardware seller call Pasternack Electronics and been publishing some articles on trends in the industry.

Here I have to apologize for not keeping the required links, but I have a downloaded PDF from Pasternack which I got in December entitled “Updates on Millimeter-Wave 5G (Part 2)” which says that the bands where the biggest speed improvements should be expected, in the millimeter wavelength spectrum from 24 to 25 GHz, aren't there yet.  Nobody is deploying these mm wave systems.  The author puts it this way:
Early 5G build-outs and tests all appear to be sub-6 GHz (mid-band) or low-band (sub-1 GHz), with only hints that some wireless operators may use mmWave spectrum alongside sub-6 GHz in select urban areas of the future. For example, Verizon’s early 5G deployments in Minneapolis and Chicago only offer sub-6 GHz 5G, and, though impressive, are only suggested to reach average speeds to 450 Mbps. There also appear to be substantial service issues with Verizon’s 5G, where service is spotty and far from full, or even adequate [3].
In that linked reference, a writer for Tom's Hardware goes to Chicago to test the Verizon 5G deployment in the city.  It's a good improvement over his LTE or 4G phones, but surprisingly found his LTE phones downloaded a game twice as fast as his 5G phones.  Less surprisingly, speeds were variable as he moved around the city.  At best he was getting around 600 megabits per second.  That's good, but far short of the promised 5000 Mbits/sec (usually written as 5 Gbits/sec), and the spotty service left him with speeds well under that in places, with a low of 163 Mbits/sec.  The physics of the system is going to make it hard to eliminate the changes in bit rate with small movements.

There's what I consider an ugly truth here.  Nobody on earth really knows how to deploy a network of mm wave, two-way, datalinks with multiple radios, each one bearing multiple input/multiple output (MIMO) antenna interfaces.  There are people experienced with mm waves in the 24 to 25 GHz range; there just aren't thousands of them.  I have no doubts they'll be able to make it work but it will take more blood, sweat and tears than planned.  For me the bright side is that by the time the 5G networks make it here to Smallville, just about all of the implementation problems will have been solved.

Early summary of the case for 5G improvements, from EDN Asia Magazine, 2017.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

And What Were We Saying Yesterday?

A headline today at PJ Media, Ohio Town Rolls Out Red Carpet for Homeless. Is Shocked When Stream of Homeless Show Up.
They just wanted to do the right thing. The small town of Middletown, Ohio, a town of 49,000 people, has opened all manner of homeless services. There is everything from soup kitchens and shelters that allow you to be high and drunk to rehab facilities to sober up.

And that's the problem. You can come to Middletown to stay drunk and high and get three hots and a cot without having to do much.
It turns out that since their initiatives were put in place, the homeless are swamping the town and residents are shocked - shocked I say! - to find that many aren't even from their town!

Seriously, they're that naive.

Middletown is learning the lesson that when they incentivize something, they get more of it.  Some of it is voluntary migration of the homeless, but some of the homeless they've added have been dumped by other cities.  It's not just New York City that gives homeless a one-way bus ticket to somewhere out of town (it's reported that NYFC spends more than half a million bucks on tickets every year), it's a widespread practice.

Listen, Middletown, I'll let you in on the secret.  It's not a new secret; it's been known for millennia.  Benjamin Franklin, put it this way:
“I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion of the means. I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. In my youth I traveled much, and I observed in different countries, that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.”  
The author of that PJ Media piece is Victoria Taft, who is also a radio and TV personality with talk radio show in California and TV appearances on One America News Network, OANN.  She has some interesting anecdotes from covering the California homeless situation, but concludes with the bottom line:
Helping the homeless requires a delicate balance. This is a fragile population of people. But there's one thing you can bet on: if there's free stuff and if it's easy to get, they will come.

I wonder how long until Middleton needs the street cleaning treatments for human waste, like this one in Seattle?  (Getty Images, Yuri Kadobnov

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

B.F. Skinner And A Million After Him Said

In plain English (translated to Redneck), you get more of behaviors you reward and less of behaviors you punish.  B.F. Skinner, of course, was the preeminent behavioral psychologist of his day. 

Charlie Martin at PJ Media provides an otherwise unremarkable article but makes it clear that what we're seeing from Iran is exactly the kind of responses expected when training a lab animal.  On a night (east coast time) when missiles are raining down on Iraqi air bases that are home to American troops, it's helpful to remember the setup for this goes back a long way, not just to last Thursday.
I think there's a larger point here, something that BF Skinner showed with pigeons but that goes for people too: when you reward a behavior, you get more of it.

Looking back over the last 10 years, we've seen the Obama Administration ignoring Iranian provocation to get the "Nuclear Deal", sending them billions of dollars in cash — and releasing this same Soleimani from previous sanctions, something John Kerry tried to explain by saying it wasn't this Soleimani, but another guy of the same name (which was a lie by the way), and then ignoring blatant violations of the agreement they were so proud of making, while Iran continued to attack the Iraqi government and kill civilians.

When you reward a behavior, you get more of it. And we have: since the Obama deal, Iran has increased its military budget using the money the Obama deal supplied; support for terrorism has actually increased.

Of course, this is what we'd expect: we keep rewarding the Iranian government, they keep doing what gets them rewarded.
Skinner noted that negative reinforcement (punishment) would work to discourage a behavior but it has to hurt, or at least be unpleasant.  The US in particular and the international community in general has been rather weak at administering negative reinforcement.  From stories in the media, Soleimani had grown accustomed to doing anything he wanted.  He was the Instagram Selfie terrorist leader.  He fully believed either we couldn't or wouldn't do anything to him; in a word, complacent.  There's a story that a recent defector from his Quds force (Quds is their word for Jerusalem) brought piles of documents on what he was up to.  While they say surveillance went up, intelligence probably knew his location at all times for a while.

Twitter user TheLastRefuge tweets the following picture which might help explain things - if true.  (Found on Rantingly)

I only know three are true off the top of my head: the ones involving Obama, Valeri Jarrett, and John Kerry.  Lisa Page, Peter Strozk, and Huma Abedin are new to me. 


Monday, January 6, 2020

The Other Kitchen Exeriments Going on Here

Besides the barbecue stuff I wrote about Saturday.

Two words: ice cream.

Exactly why I'm experimenting with ice cream probably needs a little explanation, but as little as possible.  For the last five years, I've been following a ketogenic diet.  Much like Denninger talks about, but I talk about it much less than Karl Does.  A quick search of the term says I've mentioned it once

The essential requirement of a ketogenic diet is eating few enough grams of carbohydrate to enter a state of benign dietary ketosis, where your body is primarily burning fat for fuel and producing a few different ketones that circulate in our blood.  For most people, a carb intake guaranteed to get you into ketosis is 20 grams per day.  Many of us can handle more, some require virtually zero.  If you're not used to counting grams of carbohydrate 20g won't mean much, but a single apple or single slice of bread usually gets you close to or over 20g. 

I don't want to get into details on that - there are plenty of useful sites (professionals 1 and professionals 2) to help if you really want to understand it - just know that essentially zero sugar is going to fit in 20g/day so my ice cream has to be zero sugar and close to zero carbohydrates.  This matters because sugar molecules affect the way the ice cream freezes and the resulting textures. 

Several months ago (September?) the nearby Publix started carrying ice cream from a startup specializing in keto ice cream.  It had been years (six? eight?) since I'd had ice cream, it was hot enough to melt aluminum on the sidewalk, so I bought a pint.  Suffice it to say it was a good treat, but eventually I decided it wasn't exactly what I liked. For example, they have a "cherry chip" flavor, but frozen chocolate chips feel like almost like shards of ceramic.  I thought $6/pt for ice cream I'm not that wild about is silly but it was a starting point that got me thinking of trying to make my own.  I stopped buying a pint every week.

Then came Christmas and while shopping for family, we decided to gift ourselves one of these ice cream makers.  Ice cream makers have changed a lot since I last looked at them.  When I was a kid, my parents had a maker that we'd fill with ice layered with salt and crank and handle to spin a container of ingredients.  This one I got operates completely differently; there's a container inside that has a gel you freeze by leaving it in a freezer for 12 hours before using it - or all the time when you're not using it.  There's a paddle assembly in it and a motor spins the frozen container with the mixture you're making.  The mix in contact with the walls freezes instantly, it's scraped off and replaced, and eventually turns into something with the texture of soft-serve ice cream.  My first batch was plain vanilla, here. 

This is literally four ingredients:
1 cup half and half
2 cups heavy whipping cream
3/4 cup Splenda or something that measures as sugar does
1-2 tsp vanilla extract
Shortly after this picture was taken, the soft serve was put into a plastic container and frozen overnight.  Taste-wise, it was fine, but the texture left a little to be desired.  It was a little hard, but even the store-bought ice cream was a bit hard.

Last weekend, we did a batch of coffee ice cream, one of Mrs. Graybeard's favorite flavors.  That had more of an ice texture; it felt like larger ice crystal than I'd like.  Like the vanilla, the taste was fine.  I think the water in the coffee (more than one 8oz cup) is what caused the ice crystal sensations.

This weekend, I tried a cherry vanilla recipe and it came out great.  This is the batch after coming out of the Cuisinart and packed to put in the freezer.  It needed to freeze overnight.

This is a little more involved. 
2 large eggs, whole
1 cup half and half
2 cups heavy cream
3/4 cup Swerve Confectioner's Sugar 
1/2 tsp xanthan gum
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp cherry extract

added after ice cream maker, before freezer
1/2 cup frozen cherries, no sugar, diced
The preparation is more involved than the other two, and consists of whisking the eggs a couple of minutes and then whisking in the other ingredients.  In return, the texture is much better.  The only ingredients in there a non-keto person probably doesn't recognize are Swerve brand artificial sweetener (which is mostly the sugar alcohol erythritol) and xanthan gum, which is typically used to thicken gravy.

In comparison, here's the ingredients for the Rebel Creamery cherry chip:
Ingredients: Cream, Water, Erythritol, Sour Cherries, Chocolate Flakes (Coconut Oil, Cocoa, Erythritol, Sunflower Lecithin, Salt, Dutched Cocoa, Natural Vanilla Flavor, Monk Fruit), Chicory Root Fiber, Egg Yolks, Vegetable Glycerin, Milk Protein Isolate, Natural Cherry Flavor, Salt, Peruvian Carob Gum, Guar Gum, Monk Fruit, Citric Acid, Carob Gum.
Ignoring the ingredients for the chocolate flakes, there are 15 ingredients in there.  There are eight in mine.  From what I know, the chicory root fiber, glycerin, two carob gums, and guar gum are all used to help the texture. 

I literally had something like this in mind when I thought of getting the ice cream maker.  Instead of their chocolate shards, bits of frozen cherries.  I'm not sure what the next mix will be, but a similar vanilla base with raspberries (lower sugar than cherries) or some other flavor highlights seems likely, along with a bit more research into how to get the coffee ice cream smoother. 

Sunday, January 5, 2020

SpaceX Kicking of 2020 Tomorrow

Tomorrow night will be the first launch of the year for SpaceX in what observers are saying may be a “transcendent year” for the company.  The next batch of 60 Starlink Satellites is scheduled for launch Monday night at 9:19 PM, or 0219 UTC on the January 7th.  The company did their normal prelaunch test firing of the Falcon 9 on the pad Saturday and pronounced it ready to go.

What stands to make this year stand out for SpaceX is the convergence of several lines.  Starting with this mission the first of these lines is their launches for themselves, not contracted to some another entity.  Ars Technica reports that the company will be launching many of these 60 satellite deployment missions for their Starlink internet satellite service; possibly as many as a dozen of those 60-satellite deployment missions this year. 
SpaceX has now launched two batches of 60 Starlink Internet satellites—one of which was experimental, and the second of which is expected to be operational as part of a low-Earth-orbit constellation. As early as January 6, the company anticipates launching its second batch of operational satellites, known as the Starlink-2 mission. The Starlink-3 and Starlink-4 missions may also launch in January.

At this kind of launch cadence, SpaceX should be ready to offer an initial, "bumpy" service by the middle of 2020, the company's president and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, said in December. The company plans to offer "mature" service in 2021.
As a revenue stream, that's important for SpaceX as a business, but obviously isn't the most important thing to NASA.  The agency wants them to launch American astronauts to the ISS from American soil.  This year will mark nine years of relying on the Russians for a lift to the ISS, since the shuttles was last launched in 2011.  As you know, NASA has contracted both Boeing and SpaceX to provide launch services.  NASA apparently prefers for both companies to get their vehicles flying this year, but neither company has a perfect record.  SpaceX had a successful robotically controlled mission of their Crew Dragon to the ISS last March, but that capsule exploded a month later during an abort thruster test, leading them to redesign a system that had never failed before.  Boeing has had success in their emergency escape system test but failed in their mission to the ISS in December.  This is the second line converging for SpaceX this year.

The third line that's converging for SpaceX is their Starship.  Rumors are flying of a first flight in the next few months.  Maybe pencil-in June on your “keep an eye out” calendar? 
SpaceX had some success in 2019 with its Starship program as it built the stubby "Starhopper" prototype to test the performance of its new Raptor rocket engine. The vehicle made controlled flights, first of 20 meters and then 150 meters, before SpaceX moved on to build full-scale prototypes of the Starship vehicle.

This process has not been without some issues, but now SpaceX appears to be closer to a final design. According to Paul Wooster, the principal Mars development engineer at SpaceX, the company has spent a little more than four years working on optimizing the shape, materials, and performance of the Starship vehicle. It would be no small feat to build this fully reusable second stage for both cargo and, eventually, humans. So it has taken time, and a lot of testing, to get to even this point.

SpaceX engineers have been working rapidly to bring a flight-worthy model of Starship to the launch pad near Boca Chica Beach in South Texas. Company founder and chief technical designer Elon Musk spent the day (and night) after Christmas working with his team on pressurized fuel tank domes for the next iteration of the vehicle, now called SN1. Although Musk's timelines are not particularly reliable, he said this vehicle may be ready for test flights in two or three months.

A launch of the full-scale Starship vehicle — which one day may ferry humans to the Moon or Mars — would represent a key step toward SpaceX's ultimate goal of settling Mars. It might also convince policymakers in Washington, DC, that the vehicle could play a role in the Artemis Moon Program plans.
The fourth and final converging line is their core business as a launch services provider, launching satellites for any customer. 

After 2018's 22 total launches, the company had a much quieter 2019 with only 13 orbital launches — 11 by the Falcon 9 rocket and two by the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle.  Barring anything catastrophic, it seems they should easily exceed their 22 mission record this year.  Ars space reporter Eric Berger notes:
With missions planned for commercial satellite customers, NASA, and Starlink, it seems possible that SpaceX could launch 30 or more Falcon 9 rockets in 2020. This would easily make the Falcon 9 rocket the most experienced active US rocket—surpassing the Atlas V vehicle. 
The limiting factor for Falcon 9 launches appears to be how many upper stages they can produce for the vehicle.  The company has already shown customers that recovering the first stage isn't a circus trick, I believe the current count is 47 successful recoveries of a first stage, and they've flown boosters as many as four times.  Now think of the Starlink program again.  SpaceX can demonstrate that proposals for launch cost reduction are not empty promises by testing the reuse approaches on their own launches.  They've already flown a recovered fairing, on a booster that reached four flights during their November Starlink launch.  In the coverage of that Starlink launch, it was mentioned that they seem to be moving toward learning how to recover upper stages. That would impact that problem of how fast they can produce upper stages, wouldn't it? 

The Starship depicted next to a Saturn V and a Falcon 9.  I believe that the portion that Musk is saying may be “ready for test flights in two or three months” is the upper stage of Starship, not the entire vehicle.  Credit to Kimi_Talvitie on Instagram.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Other Activities Around Here

So I hear you asking, “so SiG, what adventures with barbecue and cooking have you had lately?”  Yeah, alright.  Nobody asked that, but I'll tell you anyway.

I've been experimenting with smoking more foods in my Weber Kettle grill that I talked about last summer. After Thanksgiving's turkey, Mrs. Graybeard suggested I do something for Christmas.  Just at that time, the email barbecue group newsletter I get was talking about prime rib roasts, and literally within an hour of that email we saw an ad from Publix saying they had those on sale at about 30% off.  Clearly a message we should smoke a prime rib roast and we found a smaller one (3-1/2 pounds) that came home with us.  That was cooked sous vide style (see my Barbecue 401 post) at 132 for 7 hours on Christmas eve, chilled overnight, and then smoked for 3 hours Christmas afternoon.  I wasn't very happy with the looks of the bark, but it tasted wonderful, it was incredibly tender, and we got three dinners out of it.

For New Year's she suggested I go to something more conventional and suggested pulled pork from a shoulder we've had in the freezer for a long time.  Again, sous vide, this time cooked at 160 for 22 hours and then smoked for another four.  This time, I made a more concerted effort to heat the chamber hotter, measuring the temperature near the hunk of pork, and trying to keep it in the range of 280 to 300 because this helps get a better bark.  I've been unable to recreate the dark mahogany to black bark I've gotten when not preparing the meats by sous vide, and I'm starting to think it relies on cooking chemistry that the sous vide preparation destroys.  Compare this side by side of the virtually black bark on a pork shoulder cooked in my Masterbuilt Electric Smoker, right, with the almost cherry colored bark of Wednesday's sous vide pulled pork on the left.

A complicating fact is that there's also an internal sign of being cooked properly in a smoker, a pink smoke ring within the first quarter inch of the surface.  The one on the left has a smoke ring, the one on the right doesn't.  Taste wise, the sous vide pork butt is great, but I like that dark bark better.  Look at all the pink in this one, once it's shredded a bit.  I want both the dark, flavorful bark and the pink smoke ring.  As they used to say, I want it all and I want it now. 

There's another big set of culinary experiments going on, but I'll have to get to that some other day. 

Friday, January 3, 2020

Glass Half Full or Glass Half Empty - the Other Side

As counterpoint to yesterday's piece with an optimistic tone about the coming year and next decade, you really don't have to look very far.  Frankly, you have to look harder to find optimism than pessimism.

Let's start with the big one; the one on everybody's mind: Virginia. This is where people most think that our cold civil war is most likely to go hot.
That's plenty of reading.  It's hard not to notice while reading the comments that, to quote Peter (Bayou Renaissance Man):
It worries me more than words can say that we've got people not merely casually tossing around the idea of civil war, but actively trying to foment it, on both sides of the political aisle. 
When both sides refuse to back down, that's the definition of conflict.  It's hard not to conclude the Republic is irreparably broken, and the next step is dissolution into open warfare.  It doesn't have to be but if both sides keep pushing for it, it will happen.

Back on my New Year's eve piece, I like to Borepatch's Thoughts on what's past, and what's ahead. Borepatch doesn't even mention Virginia until nearly the end, but brings up lots of the things on my mind.  Here, he's quoting from Free-Man's Perspective in a piece, “Government Against the People: It Gets Worse In the Late Stages.”
Let me be clear on this: Once ruling hierarchies get beyond a certain point, they cannot be reformed. And I am sure that the modern West is beyond that point.
  • Do we really believe that central bankers will just lay down their monopolies?
  • Can we seriously expect a hundred trillion dollars of debt to be liquidated without any consequences?
  • Do we actually believe that politicians will walk away from their power and apologize for abusing us?
  • Do we really think that the corporations who own Congress will just give up the game that is enriching them?
  • Does anyone seriously believe that the NSA is going to say, “Gee, that Fourth Amendment really is kind of clear, and everything we do violates it… so, everyone here is fired and the last person out will please turn off the lights”?
All of this, and more, has been regular blog fodder around here.  Looking at the first two, I've been saying that I can see an economic collapse coming literally since the first post on this blog - almost 10 years ago.  I've advocated for a return to a gold standard - or at least one based on real commodities that can't be created in virtually infinite amounts on a whim.

So where are we?  What are these things saying?  I sure don't know.  Will Virginia turn into the shooting match that appears to be coming?  Don't know.  Will the US exist in 2030?  All I know is that with 100% certainty is that if the country is gone in 2030 the cause will absolutely have nothing to do with climate change.  Given the absolute truth that nobody can predict the future with absolute accuracy, I think you could do worse than listen to (read) Raconteur Report's “The 2019 Quincy Adams Wagstaff Lecture”
Wherever you're reading this, you've had unmistakable evidence that things aren't going to go all rosy. Perhaps ever again. Perhaps just for a long dark winter of the soul, and/or of the entire civilization. There has been more than one Dark Age period in human history, and they will happen again. You may very well get to see this firsthand, and experience life amidst it. Howsoever long or briefly.
Aesop goes on to talk about the value of trying to prepare for the variety of things that are coming.  Switching over to John Wilder, he points out:
Aesop mentions mental readiness, and that’s key.  The last 37 months have been, to put it mildly, an indication that we are headed towards a very uncertain future as the culture around us continues to polarize, as the monetary debt we face (all over the world) continues to mount, as soccer is still taken seriously as an international sport rather than a game for attention challenged three-year-olds, and as the international stability that was so hard won with the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War dissolves.


Thursday, January 2, 2020

Glass Half Full or Glass Half Empty

I don't have to explain that; everyone knows the half glass of water witticism.  As a teen I would always frustrate the questioner by saying “it's just half a glass; you don't know if it's being filled or emptied so you can't know which one you're halfway to.”

What I'm referring to is the coming decade (pedants note: I didn't say we've started a new decade, yet), of course.  Is 2020 going to kick off the coming spicy time (horrible name, BTW, spicy food is good so spicy times ought to be good), or is it going to be the continuation of the way the world has gotten continuously better?  The last decade has seen a dramatic continuation of things getting better and the next decade should continue to see it as well.
Writing for Britain's Spectator magazine, Matt Ridley explained that the 2010s have seen "the greatest improvement in human living standards in history. Extreme poverty has fallen below 10 per cent of the world’s population for the first time. It was 60 per cent when I was born. Global inequality has been plunging as Africa and Asia experience faster economic growth than Europe and North America; child mortality has fallen to record low levels; famine virtually went extinct; malaria, polio and heart disease are all in decline." [Bold added:  SiG]
Ridley is a good guy to write a piece like this, published in the Spectator and excerpted at PJ Media because of a book he wrote about decade ago, The Rational Optimist.  Released in 2011, that was while the world was still in the depths of the 2008 crash, although starting to recover.  Reviewers thought he was crazy to be optimistic but many of his central claims have come to be the case.
Perhaps one of the least fashionable predictions I made nine years ago was that ‘the ecological footprint of human activity is probably shrinking’ and ‘we are getting more sustainable, not less, in the way we use the planet’. That is to say: our population and economy would grow, but we’d learn how to reduce what we take from the planet. And so it has proved. An MIT scientist, Andrew McAfee, recently documented this in a book called More from Less, showing how some nations are beginning to use less stuff: less metal, less water, less land. Not just in proportion to productivity: less stuff overall.
Doesn't quite fit in with what little Snippi Longstocking, Extinction Rebellion, and the other disaster-pr0n promoters tell us; but it's true.  In Ridely's native UK, their consumption of resources peaked around the turn of the century, Y2K, and has been in decline since.
The quantity of all resources consumed per person in Britain (domestic extraction of biomass, metals, minerals and fossil fuels, plus imports minus exports) fell by a third between 2000 and 2017, from 12.5 tonnes to 8.5 tonnes. That’s a faster decline than the increase in the number of people, so it means fewer resources consumed overall.
The most important progress was in the cost of production and delivery of energy, the lifeblood of pretty much everything.
The shale oil revolution from horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, which started in 2006 but peaked in the past decade, nearly helped make the United States a net energy exporter for the first time since 1953.
Before the shale oil boom, the U.S. was expected to become a big importer of liquified natural gas, but America now exports LNG to 36 countries, double the 18 countries at the beginning of the Trump administration. Shipping the gas to Europe has reduced the continent's dependence on Russia.
Not that I think CO2 emission are important, but Ridley points out that U.S. carbon emissions have declined this past decade, defying predictions that they would continue to increase.  Remember the Hoopla around Trump pulling the US out of the Paris Climate Accords - and now we're virtually the only nation actually meeting those targets?  It's that natural gas production.  Natural gas emits half as much carbon as coal, and it generated 35 percent of U.S. power in 2018, the most of any source. Coal, meanwhile, dropped from 45 percent in 2010 to 25 percent in 2019 — and it is projected to drop still farther to 22 percent next year.

Turning back to the reduction in use of resources:
If this doesn’t seem to make sense, then think about your own home. Mobile phones have the computing power of room-sized computers of the 1970s. I use mine instead of a camera, radio, torch, compass, map, calendar, watch, CD player, newspaper and pack of cards. LED light bulbs consume about a quarter as much electricity as incandescent bulbs for the same light. Modern buildings generally contain less steel and more of it is recycled. Offices are not yet paperless, but they use much less paper.
I think a clue to the decline in use of resources is the collapse of the recycling movements.  First off, as I've said many times, it's not possible to create a market for something by fiat.  Someone can't just say those empty food cans in the garbage stream can be used to make something, and create a market for it.  A resource is worth exactly what a willing buyer will pay for it and the reality is that most cities, counties and other government levels are finding they get far less for recyclables than collecting and processing them costs.  More is being dumped in the landfills.  When resources are in short supply, companies will be mining in the landfills; as the richest mines for iron, copper and other metals.  That's recycling running at full speed - for certain materials.  The fact that no mining company wants to mine in old landfills says that there's plenty of resources available and recycled garbage is more expensive than mining and refining ores.

The article at the Spectator or the excerpting at PJ Media are worth reading.  The obvious thing I see no mention of is personal freedom and liberty, a topic he's strangely quiet about.  What I'm doing here - and I suspect some of you realize this - is setting a table.  Tonight's buffet is optimistic; tomorrow's will be more toward the pessimistic side.  I think that our brains are hardwired to consider coming problems, simply from a survival advantage standpoint.  Reacting to a saber tooth tiger is easier and more successful when you're preventing or avoiding an attack than when the tiger has jumped you.  When everything is good, we look for those things that are out of place; the things that might go bad tomorrow and tend to focus on them.  

Final words to Tyler O'Neill at PJ Media.
This remarkable progress has not come equally, even though it has benefitted nearly everyone in the world. Millennials enjoy pervasive entertainment, fresh food, and many new kinds of job opportunities, but we struggle to achieve homeownership. High immigration levels, radical liberal policies, and the push toward identity politics have increased political tensions, just as prosperity has deepened and widened.

The 2010s were an objectively great decade, but they may not have felt like it. Whatever their political persuasions, however, Americans should look back on the past decade and appreciate the progress. They should also reject radical proposals that would reverse these heartening trends.